As many of you undoubtedly saw in the news this past week, militants of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) destroyed priceless Mesopotamian statues and artifacts in the Mosul museum and burned thousands of documents dating back centuries. In a video documenting the rampage, ISIS claimed that such historical treasures promoted idolatry and therefore had to be destroyed. This recalled for me the apocryphal words of the Caliph Omar in burning the Library of Alexandria while establishing the first caliphate: “If these books agree with the Koran, they are useless; if they disagree, they are pernicious: in either case, they ought to be destroyed.”
Such words take on new urgency after ISIS’s actions, but it’s important to remember that this ancient tradition of Islamic indifference to culture is clearly false and not meant to be taken literally. The Library of Alexandria ceased to exist centuries before Islam, the first Library destroyed by fire during the Roman conquest, and the last destroyed by Christians for its association with worship of the idol Serapis. The Omar story was first told by the Arabic writer Abu’l Faraj in the thirteenth century CE (though alluded to by ‘Abd al Latif earlier) and has been proverbial ever since, appearing in Abu’l Fida a century later and Al-Maqrizi a century after that. All of these men were writing books that agreed with the Qur’an, and they obviously did not feel their works worthy only for the pyre.
The actions of ISIS in establishing their presumed new caliphate earned condemnation around the world, but in postings I saw on Facebook and other social media, some who view the West as being in a war with Islam seized upon verses of the Qur’an to suggest that Islam is somehow unique in vandalizing ancient treasures in the name of preventing idolatry. Fortunately, I haven’t seen any mainstream pundits repeating the claim, which is a rarity in today’s internet-driven echo chamber. Their citation of the Qur’anic story, though, did lead me to some interesting texts about the monotheistic tradition of smashing idols.
The relevant text is found in the Qur’an at 21:51-71. In the passage, Abraham announces his intention to destroy the idols worshiped by his father and the people of Ur instead of Allah:
52. Remember when he said unto his father, and his people, “What are these images, to which ye are so entirely devoted?” 53. They answered, “We found our fathers worshipping them.” 54. He said, “Verily both ye and your fathers have been in a manifest error.” 55. They said, “Dost thou seriously tell us the truth, or art thou one who jestest with us?” 56. He replied, “Verily your LORD is the LORD of the heavens and the earth; it is he who hath created them: and I am one of those who bear witness thereof. 57. By GOD, I will surely devise a plot against your idols, after ye shall have retired from them, and shall have turned your backs.” 58. And in the people’s absence he went into the temple where the idols stood, and he brake them all in pieces, except the biggest of them; that they might lay the blame upon that. 59. And when they were returned, and saw the havoc which had been made, they said, “Who hath done this to our gods? He is certainly an impious person.” (trans. George Sale)
The remainder of the passage tells how the idol-worshipers tried to burn Abraham alive, but the fires would not scorch him. Later, at 21:98, the Qur’an makes plan that idol-worship will condemn a soul to hell: “Verily both ye, O men of Mecca, and the idols which ye worship besides GOD, shall be cast as fuel into hell fire: ye shall go down into the same.” (Cf. Jonah 2:8.)
But what’s interesting is that hatred of idols is a common heritage of all the Abrahamic religions, and can be found in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity as much as Islam, and often directed against the very Mesopotamian idols ISIS destroyed. For example, a very similar story about Abraham occurs in Chapter 38 of the Genesis Rabbah, a collection of Jewish lore of uncertain Late Antique or early medieval date: “He took a stick and broke all the images except the largest one, in the hand of which he placed the stick which had worked this wholesale destruction.” This story (or an oral version of it) is likely the source for the Qur’an’s account, though some Muslims have gone to great lengths to deny that this is the case.
The Bible itself is full of condemnations of idols and idolatry. Exodus 20:3-4 commands the Israelites to forgo any idols, and the Golden Calf hardly comes in for praise. In Exodus 32:20, Moses smashes the Golden Calf, grinds it to dust, mixes it with water, and forces the Israelites to drink their false god. The Bible praises those who smash the idols, like Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:3-4, where he “did right in the sight of the Lord” by smashing a serpent idol. God himself even destroys the idol of Dagon in 1 Samuel 5:1-5.
Outside the accepted canon of scripture, we find similar stories to the account in the Qur’an. In Chapter 12 of the Book of Jubilees, Abraham implores his father to give up idol worship, and in his monotheistic zeal, he “arose by night, and burned the house of the idols, and he burned all that was in the house and no man knew it” (12:12, trans. R. H. Charles). This would seem to be the precedent for the later story in the Genesis Rabbah and the Qur’an.
In the fourth part of the sixth-century Book of the Cave of Treasures, a Christian text, the author asserts that Satan lives in idols and pretends to be pagan gods. God, the author said, destroyed these idols:
And in the one hundredth year of the life of Nâhôr, when God saw that the children of men were sacrificing their Sons to devils, and worshipping idols, He opened the storehouses of the wind, and the gate of the whirlwind, and a blast of wind went forth in all the earth. And it uprooted the images, and the places where offerings were made to devils, and it swept together the idols, and the images, and the pillared buildings in a heap, and piled up great mounds [of earth] over them; [and they are there] to this day. (trans. Budge)
That’s a pretty clear message that idols deserve to be smashed. Oh, and the wind? That parallels the wind said to carry off impotent idols in Isaiah 57:13: “When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away” (NIV).
The medieval Ethiopian Kebra Nagast tells in Chapter 12 that Abraham came to monotheism through the destruction of his own idols, probably a reflex of the Genesis Rabbah story: “And he buffeted the face of one, and kicked another with his feet, and a third he knocked over and broke to pieces with stones, and he said unto them, ‘If ye are unable to save yourselves from him that buffeteth you, and ye cannot requite with injury him that injureth you, how can ye be called “gods”?’” (trans. Budge).
The fact is, since the rise of monotheism nearly everyone smashes idols. (Polytheists were a mixed lot, just as likely to capture an idol and take it home as to destroy it.) The Byzantine iconoclasts and Protestant reformers both attacked Christian imagery, destroying statues and icons for violating God’s commandment. Charlemagne legislated the destruction of Germanic pagan sanctuaries. The Spanish obliterated the idols of the Mexicans and Peruvians during the Conquest of the New World. Francisco Burgoa tells in his Geographica descripcion de la America setentrional, Chapter 28, how a missionary destroyed a Mixtec idol made of nearly priceless translucent green stone by following the example of Moses, grinding it to dust, mixing it with water, pouring it onto the earth, and stomping on it to show that the Mixtec gods were powerless. Two centuries after that, the Revolutionary French smashed the stained glass images of Jesus and the saints to demonstrate the triumph of reason over religion. Two centuries later, the peoples of Eastern Europe tore down the statues of Lenin and Stalin and broke them into pieces to symbolize the destruction of Communist ideology. Early in this century, the Taliban infamously destroyed medieval statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.
The difference, though, is that the idols that past groups desecrated had behind them the power of belief. They were dangerous because someone believed in them. By contrast, aside from a few followers of Zecharia Sitchin’s version of the ancient astronaut theory, no one believes in the Mesopotamian gods. Their power is gone, their idols merely art. When ISIS claims that they are acting in the name of ending idolatry, they lie since and idol must have worshipers. Without them, it is just a statue.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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